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Plumbers are always in high demand. They fit and maintain water systems in buildings, which includes, but is not limited to, toilets, baths, showers, sinks, washing machines and dishwashers. They can also install central heating systems but need additional qualifications to work with gas boilers. Plumbers install new pipework, service older systems, identify and fix faults, and may attend emergency call-outs when water or heating systems are damaged. Plumbers work in a variety of environments and need to maintain their own safety, as well as the safety of the area and people around them. It is important that they know what safety issues to be aware of and how to observe and promote safety at work.
What is the role of a plumber?
A plumber is responsible for maintaining and installing pipes in homes, businesses and other buildings and structures. These pipes are used for drainage, irrigation, sewage and drinking water. Some plumbing professionals work alongside architects, contributing valuable knowledge in the earliest stages of a property development project. Working with such important parts of buildings means plumbers must have knowledge of building regulations, safety standards and legal guidelines. Plumbers may work on construction sites, in a variety of both private and public properties and in people’s homes.
Depending on where they work, the role may involve, but is not limited to:
- Repairing water pipes, assessing the problems and recommending the best solutions to ensure the plumbing systems are working.
- Using diagnostic equipment to diagnose problems in the plumbing system before recommending solutions.
- Installing new water pipes and plumbing systems in residential and commercial buildings.
- Installing fixtures that assist with plumbing, for example taps, toilets, sinks and bathroom showers.
- Reading the blueprints and planning new installations.
- Designing water and heating systems.
- Installing plumbing systems during construction or remodelling, including hot and cold water, sanitation and drainage.
- Cutting and joining pipes and fittings.
- Installing central heating systems and domestic fuel-burning appliances using gas, oil or solid fuel.
- Responding to emergency call-outs such as floods or boiler breakdowns.
- Travelling to residential homes or commercial properties to fix plumbing issues.
- Installing white goods such as washing machines, dishwashers etc.
- Working at a customer’s home or business, often at height or in cramped conditions.
- Ensuring all plumbing work and drainage systems are compliant with building regulations and the relevant legislation.
The above list is not exhaustive. Different types of plumbers often specialise in certain areas such as:
- Construction plumbers – these plumbers help plan and install plumbing systems for new residential or commercial buildings or remodels. They are essential contractors to make sure a home or commercial building has running water.
- Commercial plumbers – these plumbers work in commercial settings, such as colleges, schools, hospitals and manufacturing plants.
- Service and repair plumbers – this work takes place in commercial and residential settings, where duties include maintenance and repairs, fixing leaks, eliminating blockages, and cleaning plumbing systems and fixtures.
- Residential plumbers – this involves maintaining and repairing plumbing fixtures and pipes, small-scale plumbing jobs and working with water systems, pipes and toilets, unblocking and clearing blockages in domestic systems. The focus is on resolving plumbing issues in homes.
- Water supply plumbers – these professional tradespeople are responsible for the flow of water into a home, business, school, hospital, or other building. They install and repair various water tanks and supply lines, such as kitchen sinks, overhead storage tanks, bathroom tanks, and pipes.
Whatever the environment they work in, a plumber will be responsible for ensuring the safety of their work, tools and any equipment to protect the safety of themselves and other people.
What are the main health and safety risks plumbers can encounter?
Working alongside human waste, mould, chemicals and biohazard materials is an everyday hazard for a plumber. There are a number of health risks associated with occupational exposure to sewage. The majority of illnesses are relatively mild cases of gastroenteritis, an infection of the gut (intestines) which is a very common condition that causes diarrhoea and vomiting caused when microorganisms have entered the body via contaminated tools or hand-to-mouth contact while eating, drinking or smoking, and by wiping the face with contaminated hands or gloves.
Contact with these pathogens can cause disease, a number of which are potentially fatal diseases that can pose a health risk to plumbers, such as:
- Leptospirosis (Weil’s disease) – this is contracted from the urine of infected rats. The bacteria get into the body through cuts and scratches or through the lining of the mouth, throat and eyes after contact with infected urine or contaminated water. The risk of Weil’s disease is linked to areas where rats are or have been present. Work is considered higher risk where there is evidence of rat infestation and includes work linked to canals, rivers or sewers. More severe cases of Weil’s disease can lead to meningitis, kidney failure and other serious conditions and, in rare cases, the disease can be fatal.
- E. coli – this is spread by the faecal-oral route. Most strains are usually harmless. A few strains cause diarrhoea / bloody diarrhoea, vomiting and stomach pains and cramps. One strain can lead to kidney failure if not properly managed.
Plumbers can be infected with parasites such as intestinal worms and Giardia duodenalis, also known as Giardia intestinalis, which can cause a variety of intestinal symptoms, including diarrhoea, stomach cramps or pain, nausea and dehydration. Germs in sewage can cause skin infections if they enter a cut or abrasion, and they can also cause eye and ear infections.
Due to the fact that microorganisms are an innate characteristic of sewage, it is not possible to eliminate the hazard completely; however, measures should be in place to reduce the risk of infection and illness. Plumbers should assume that everything, including equipment, clothing and themselves, that might be in contact with sewage in the course of their work is contaminated, and have effective decontamination procedures in place. Plumbers should always use safe systems of work and wear the protective equipment that is provided. We will look at PPE in more detail later in this guide.
The Reporting of Injuries, Diseases and Dangerous Occurrences Regulations 2013 (RIDDOR) places duties on employers, the self-employed and people in control of work premises (the responsible person) to report certain serious workplace accidents, occupational diseases and specified dangerous occurrences (near misses). Exposure to microorganisms that lead to diseases such as hepatitis is reportable under RIDDOR when a work activity causes accidental contamination sufficient to cause damage to the health of any person. Such situations are likely to arise when work is carried out without suitable controls, or where those controls fail.
Asbestos was especially useful in insulation such as for pipe lagging and boilers, and can commonly be found in any building that was constructed before the year 2000, so plumbers may encounter asbestos during the course of their work. According to the Health and Safety Executive (HSE), asbestos kills around 5,000 workers each year, which is more than the number of people killed on the road, and around 20 trades workers die each week as a result of past exposure.
When materials that contain asbestos are disturbed or damaged, fibres are released into the air. When these fibres are inhaled, they can cause serious diseases. These diseases will not affect you immediately as they often take a long time to develop, but once diagnosed, it is often too late to do anything.
Many cases of inadvertent, short-term exposure to asbestos will most likely have led to minimal exposure to fibres, with little likelihood of any long-term ill health effects. If you are concerned about possible exposure to asbestos from work activities, you are advised to consult your GP and ask for a note to be made in your personal record about possible exposure, including date(s), duration, type of asbestos and likely exposure levels, if known. Contact with asbestos is also reportable under RIDDOR.
Plumbers must be able to recognise asbestos-containing materials (ACMs) and know what to do if they come across them in order to protect themselves and others. Training for asbestos awareness is intended to give workers the information they need to avoid work that may disturb asbestos during any normal work which could disturb the fabric of a building, or any other item which might contain asbestos. If a plumber is planning to carry out work that will definitely disturb ACMs, further specific information, instruction and training will be needed. Asbestos awareness training is a requirement of regulation 10 of the Control of Asbestos Regulations (2012), and the supporting Approved Code of Practice L143 Managing and Working with Asbestos.
A major area of risk for plumbers is the possibility of slips and trips especially as water is involved in the job, and also the risk of tripping over tools, tool boxes or tool bags whilst working in sometimes cramped space. Slips, trips and falls are one of the top three causes of non-fatal work injuries involving days away from work. Each year they cause thousands of preventable injuries, and can cause various injuries such as bruises, sprains, scrapes, broken bones and head traumas. Around 1,000 of these injuries involve someone fracturing bones or dislocating joints.
Key aspects of slips and trips include:
- Wet or slippery surfaces
- Uneven surfaces
- Trailing cables
- Changes in level
Manual handling injuries have a major impact on all workplaces and sectors, costing the economy hundreds of millions every year. Manual handling encompasses a wide range of actions including lifting, lowering, pulling, pushing, and carrying awkward and heavy objects; the risks are endless for plumbers who may experience manual handling injuries such as:
- Back injuries
- Musculoskeletal disorders (MSDs) such as shoulder strain
- Repetitive strain injury (RSI) such as wrist strain
- Soft-tissue injuries to the wrists, arms, shoulders, legs or neck
- Long-term pain in the arms, legs or joints
Overexertion is something that is easily done in any environment and can be difficult to avoid. Overexertion is usually caused by someone trying to lift or move something heavier than their capabilities or doing so incorrectly. Manual handling tasks should be avoided wherever possible. Where it isn’t possible to avoid handling a load, suitable safety measures should be introduced such as having the use of trollies or lifting equipment to move heavy items, and all plumbers should receive manual handling training to prevent and avoid injury.
Repetitive strain injury (RSI) can be caused by a variety of tasks that plumbers do at work, such as forceful or repetitive activity, or by poor posture. The condition mostly affects parts of the upper body, such as the forearms, elbows, wrists, hands, shoulders and neck. RSI is usually associated with doing a particular activity repeatedly or for a long period of time.
Plumbers may have to work at heights. Falling from height can cause serious or even fatal injury. Plumbers should exercise every precaution when working at height. For plumbers working on ladders, scaffolding or any other type of access equipment, falls from heights are a risk that needs to be taken into consideration. Using framed scaffolds offers several advantages over using ladders by providing a wider, more stable work platform. Working from scaffolding with a wide work platform is much easier and safer than working from a ladder.
Working at height can also pose risks for others, as a worker falling from a height may injure anyone below when they fall. Avoid working directly underneath someone else, where possible, and ensure that any tools or materials kept at a height are well secured so they can’t fall or cause harm.
When working at height, always change tools in secure areas where there is no risk of allowing tools to fall, and don’t use tools without attaching them to a work belt when working at height. Tools being used at height should regularly be checked for damage and check that there is no damage to lanyards, carabiners, attachment rings or belts.
Tools used in the plumbing trade have become more powerful over time, but hand tools are still a staple in the trade. Plumbers need to bear in mind that hand tools can contribute to musculoskeletal disorders, as well as cause broken bones, fractures and cuts when not used properly. The Provision and Use of Work Equipment Regulations 1998 (PUWER) place duties on people and companies who own, operate or have control over work equipment. PUWER also places responsibilities on businesses and organisations whose employees use work equipment, whether owned by them or not.
PUWER requires that equipment provided for use at work is:
- Suitable for the intended use.
- Safe for use, maintained in a safe condition and inspected to ensure it is correctly installed and does not subsequently deteriorate.
- Accompanied by suitable health and safety measures, such as protective devices and controls. These will normally include emergency stop devices, adequate means of isolation from sources of energy, clearly visible markings and warning devices.
- Used in accordance with specific requirements.
Generally, any equipment which is used by an employee at work is covered by PUWER, for example hammers, knives, ladders, drilling machines, power presses, circular saws, photocopiers, lifting equipment (including lifts), dumper trucks and motor vehicles. Similarly, workers providing their own equipment will be covered by PUWER and it will need to comply.
Hand Arm Vibration Syndrome (HAVS) is caused by exposure to vibration such as from power tools. This typically affects builders but can also be a problem for plumbers who may use saws and drills that vibrate. Try to minimise exposure to vibration and take regular breaks when using power tools that can cause this issue.
Plumbing fixtures and fittings, along with old pipework, can be sharp and it can be easy to sustain cuts from these items. Although many plumbers find it hard to work when wearing gloves, it is wise to do so in these circumstances to help avoid issues such as tetanus.
Industrial noise pollution, caused by machinery, noisy pipes and loud tools can have a detrimental effect on people’s mental and physical well-being.
Prolonged exposure to noise can lead to:
- Stress and anxiety
- Productivity loss
- Communication issues
- Cardiovascular diseases
- Nervous disorders
- Neurological problems
As many as 48% of plumbers suffer from hearing loss, according to figures from the World Health Organization (WHO), so plumbers participating in noise-heavy activities must wear ear protective equipment at all times.
When plumbing gets too close to gas and electrical lines that are often hidden behind walls and floors, the potential for danger is high. Plumbers need to do what they can to ensure that gas lines stay intact and electricity has been turned off at the mains, as electricity and water never mix; water is a good conductor of electricity and you might get an electric shock or burn injury.
For plumbers working outside, too much sunlight, even on cool days, is harmful to the skin. In the short term, even mild reddening of the skin from sun exposure is a sign of damage. Sunburn can blister the skin and make it peel and longer-term problems can arise; the most serious effect is an increased chance of developing skin cancer. Plumbers should use a high factor sunscreen of at least SPF15 on any exposed skin and, if possible, wear a hat with a brim or a flap that covers the ears and the back of the neck. They should also drink plenty of water to avoid dehydration. Dehydration is an issue for any construction project, so plumbers should drink plenty of water to avoid dehydration and keep from working outside at midday, when it is hottest, if possible. On hot, sunny days, plumbers should take frequent breaks to prevent overexertion and heat exhaustion.
Many plumbers are peripatetic, meaning that they are travelling from place to place, in particular working or based in various places throughout their day. It has been estimated that up to a third of all road traffic accidents involve somebody who is at work at the time. Health and safety laws apply to on-the-road work activities as well as to all work activities, and the risks should be effectively managed within a health and safety management system. Risk assessments for any work-related driving activity should follow the same principles as risk assessments for any other work activity.
The work of a plumber can often involve working in people’s homes. These jobs come with a unique set of risks that can be difficult to manage, especially when working alone. Working in a new unfamiliar environment can be dangerous, exposing a plumber to unknown hazards, such as broken stairs or loose wiring or hazardous materials or working conditions that could put safety at risk. A plumber may also encounter dangerous situations such as dogs, verbal abuse or even physical violence from the public, or they may be unable to get help in an emergency.
Develop and follow a plan for working alone in other people’s homes. This could include having a designated contact to call in case of an emergency. Before entering someone’s home, make sure to check in with a supervisor or a designated contact to alert them of your whereabouts. Look for potential hazards, such as loose wires or broken stairs. Make sure to wear the appropriate PPE when working in someone’s home. We will look at PPE later in this guide.
Maintaining a safe work environment is important, particularly in the high-risk work environment faced by plumbers. It is important that every hazard is met with elimination or, at the minimum, a control measure to mitigate any potential risk.
Under the Management of Health and Safety at Work Regulations (1999), the minimum a business must do is:
- Identify what could cause injury or illness in your business (hazards)
- Decide how likely it is that someone could be harmed and how seriously (the risk)
- Take action to eliminate the hazard or, if this isn’t possible, control the risk
Risk assessment requires making a judgement on Risk Severity. Risk Severity = probability of risk materialising x impact of risk on, for example, a person or people, a business, a property etc.
Probability may be understood as:
- Low (Level 1) – a reasonably informed person would think it very unlikely this risk would materialise in the foreseeable future.
- Medium (Level 2) – a reasonably informed person would think there is a significant possibility this risk would materialise in the foreseeable future.
- High (Level 3) – a reasonably informed person would think there is a very significant or even likely possibility the risk would materialise in the foreseeable future.
Impact may be understood as:
- Low (Level 1) – any impact that is minimal, having regard to the importance of interests affected, impairment of function and duration. Typically, the impact is isolated and short-lived.
- Medium (Level 2) – any impact that is significant, having regard to the importance of interests affected, impairment of function and duration. Typically, the impact is limited to one function or group, but there is a material operational impact and the effects may continue.
- High (Level 3) – any impact that is severe, having regard to the importance of interests affected, impairment of function and duration. Typically, the impact impairs a critical function and/or has a systemic impact and the effects may be long-lasting or permanent.
Plumbers must ensure an assessment has been made of any hazards, which covers:
- What the potential hazard is – the risk assessment should take into consideration the type of equipment used, the way in which it is used and the environment it is used in
- Who or what could be harmed by the hazard
- How the level of risk has been established
- The precautions taken to eliminate or control that risk
Managing risk is an ongoing process that is triggered when changes affect a plumber’s work activities; changes such as, but not limited to:
- Changing work practices, procedures or the work environment
- Purchasing new or used equipment or using new substances
- Workforce changes
- Planning to improve efficiency or reduce costs
- New information about the workplace risks becomes available
Risk assessments should be recorded and records regularly reviewed and updated whenever necessary. Should an accident occur, the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) will request copies of the risk assessments.
There are a number of laws and regulations that apply to the management of health and safety risks to plumbers.
These include, but are not limited to:
It is a requirement of the Control of Substances Hazardous to Health Regulations (COSHH) for employers to assess all exposures to hazardous substances in the workplace and implement necessary control measures in order to protect their workers’ health.
Under the Manual Handling Operations Regulations 1992 (MHOR), manual handling which might cause injury is prohibited unless an assessment has been made, and if the operation cannot be avoided, suitable control measures should be in place. In all cases, reasonable alternatives to manual handling should be employed.
Plumbers may work in confined spaces. This is governed by The Confined Spaces Regulations 1997.
The Water Services Regulation Authority (Ofwat) is the regulator for the water and sewerage sectors in England and Wales.
Why is PPE important
Personal protective equipment (PPE) protects workers from hazards such as trips, burns, electrocution and falls. While there is some PPE that is universal to many trades, plumbers have certain PPE which is specific to their job.
This includes, but is not limited to:
- Face masks and respirators – prevent potentially inhaling substances. For proper use and to ensure compliance, be sure to fit test the respirator, undergo formal training, always make sure it is clean and never borrow or use another worker’s respirator.
- Eye protection – the use of eye protection can stop harmful debris from entering the eyes such as flying cement particles or mortar dust which can cause serious eye injuries or even blindness.
- Hearing protection – plumbers are often exposed to noise from drilling etc. Failure to wear dedicated hearing protection equipment such as noise-cancelling headphones, earplugs or earmuffs, either reusable or disposable, can lead to severe damage to the eardrum, tinnitus or even irreversible hearing loss in one or both ears.
- Gloves – gloves are critical for protection from a wide range of hazards; use waterproof and or anti-cut gloves to prevent cuts and contact with human waste.
- Bump caps – hard yet lightweight head covering to protect from knocks to the head. Head protection is required by law on all construction sites where there is a risk of head injury.
- Protective clothing – plumbers should wear the correct protective and/or Hi-vis clothing to match the working conditions and the potential risks of each situation. An example is trousers with removable knee pads which are highly recommended to protect joints and improve comfort when performing jobs involving kneeling.
- Safety trainers – an alternative to steel toe-cap boots, they offer greater sensations underfoot on ladders and steps.
- Fall protection – this is required depending on the project and the structures in place. When carrying out specific jobs where there is a risk of falling from a height, plumbers might use, for example, a full harness, a retractable type fall arrester, a lanyard with shock absorber, anchor points and/or connectors.
- Sunscreen – plumbers should use sunscreen with SPF minimum 30 UVA protection or higher, 20 minutes before going outside. It doesn’t matter if they are working in the heat or not, plumbers still need to wear sunscreen for sun protection; the shade from a hard hat isn’t enough as UV radiation from the sun penetrates clouds and glass.
- Mobile phone – lone working plumbers require a method to maintain contact when working in other people’s homes and whilst on the road.
What training should plumbers take?
Some of the educational qualifications that employers look for in prospective plumbers include advanced plumbing apprenticeships, a Level 2 or 3 diploma in plumbing and domestic heating, or a T-level in building services engineering in order to specialise in plumbing for new buildings. When plumbers are trained to work safely, they should be able to anticipate and avoid injury from job-related hazards. Safety training is essential for all plumbers appropriate to their role, and training should be directly applicable to the responsibilities and daily practices of the person being trained.
This training for plumbers might include, but is not limited to:
- Health and Safety for Employees
- Health and Safety for Managers
- Manual Handling
- Workplace First Aid
- COSHH Awareness
- Working at height
- Slips, Trips and Falls
- Personal Protective Equipment (PPE)
- PUWER Awareness
- Asbestos Awareness
- Ladder safety
- Assessing Risk
- Confined Spaces
- Lone Working
- RIDDOR Awareness
Plumbers should at a minimum refresh their safety training at least every 2 years and participate in continuing professional development (CPD).
Get started on a course suitable for plumbers
Health and Safety for Employees£20 + VAT View course
Manual Handling£20 + VAT View course
RIDDOR Awareness£20 + VAT View course
Asbestos Awareness£20 + VAT View course
Workplace First Aid£20 + VAT View course
Working at height£20 + VAT View course
Lone Working£20 + VAT View course
Personal Protective Equipment (PPE)£20 + VAT View course
COSHH Awareness£20 + VAT View course
Assessing Risk (Risk Assessment Course)£20 + VAT View course
Confined Spaces£20 + VAT View course
PUWER Awareness£20 + VAT View course
Slips, Trips and Falls£20 + VAT View course
Health and Safety for Managers£49 + VAT View course
Ladder safety£20 + VAT View course